As long as the history of the American military is told, John McCain will occupy a storied place in it.
Shot down over North Vietnam, grievously wounded, tortured and kept in solitary confinement, he repeatedly refused early release, offered to him because his father was an admiral. McCain kept faith with his comrades, his duty, and his country. If he had done nothing else with his life, he would have been a legend.
Honor defined him and his politics, as a congressman, senator, and presidential candidate. He was independent-minded, decent toward his adversaries, and always interesting. With his long-time aide Mark Salter, he wrote books that, amazingly for a politician, had true literary value, none more so than his book on his family’s military tradition, Faith of My Fathers. He cared deeply about the U.S. military, and believed in the need for American international leadership. He was a tireless defender of human rights. He loved our ideals and hated our enemies. A devotee of the U.S. Senate and its traditions, he strove for statesmanship at a time when most politicians don’t even seem to be trying.
Perhaps his finest moment in the Senate was his lonely advocacy for the surge in Iraq at a low point of the war. It was classic McCain, who didn’t hesitate to take up an unpopular cause, and who propelled it with his passionate commitment and his credibility on military matters.
That said, we had many differences with him over the years. His signature domestic cause, campaign-finance legislation, was of dubious constitutionality and even more doubtful wisdom — it helped kneecap the party committees. In his insurgent 2000 bid for the Republican nomination, he road-tested a TR-inspired progressive Republicanism friendly to government regulation (although he remained in most respects a conventional Reaganite). After he lost to Bush that year in an honest fight — although the media portrayed Bush’s key victory in South Carolina as underhanded and racially charged — he entered a period of bitter estrangement from his own party.
He was an inveterate supporter of so-called comprehensive immigration reform, and joined the other sponsors in never appearing to understand why legislation for a large-scale amnesty and higher levels of legal immigration repeatedly failed.
He joked that the media were his political base, and there was, of course, much truth to this. He was irresistible to the press — accessible, jocular, and a good quote. He unfortunately absorbed some of the media’s dismissive attitude to his own party (see his denunciation of the religious Right in 2000, or his attacks on the Tea Party). When he most needed the press in 2008, having won the Republican presidential nomination after an amazing comeback, it abandoned him for an even more alluring darling, Barack Obama.
It was telling that his final act as a senator was killing off a bill to repeal and replace Obamacare. McCain found process reasons to defeat a policy goal he had said he supported, dealing an ideological and political setback to his own side seemingly out of sheer cussedness and pique.
Still, whatever disagreements we had with him, there was no doubting his love for this country and devotion to public service. The son and grandson of great Navy admirals, John McCain had much to live up to, and did so, with his signature verve and bottomless patriotism. The Senate won’t see his like again and neither will the nation. R.I.P.